Past (and Future) Perfect

The particular allure of historical and post-apocalyptic fiction.


Post-apocalyptic fiction is in. Historical fiction is in. And these two types of fiction, which have moved out of the sphere of strictly genre to mainstream audiences, have a lot in common.

What they do is strip away all the distractions of contemporary life — too much information, too much communication, too much travel, too much entertainment, too much food, too much everything.

The stories and characters in these books relate to contemporary readers on the level of basic emotions — love, fear of death, betrayal, hope. These elemental feelings are present in contemporary life, but submerged in a welter of distractions. So authors get into a time machine and take readers out of this environment.

The best historical fiction — such as Hilary Mantel’s novels about Thomas Cromwell, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies —focuses on these aspects of character. The history, the geography, the larger-than-life characters are there, evidence of research.

But Mantel does not overwhelm us with the details that characterize genre fiction — minute descriptions of the doublets people wore, the fabrics, the jewels (think Dorothy Dunnett). Instead, she will insert a telling detail, situating us in time and place, but what is absorbing about her fiction is the interplay of characters, of loyalty and betrayal, trust and disappointment.

Likewise, post-apocalyptic fiction by top writers — books like Peter Heller’s The Dog Stars or Cormac McCarthy’s The Road — reduces human life to its most primitive. These books peel away not only the excess trappings of our civilization, but civilization itself, exposing the naked needs of survival. The instinctive animosity toward others that we have tamed in civilized society re-emerges in the kill-or-be-killed environment of these grim futures after the end of the world as we know it.

It helps, of course, that these talented authors really know how to write. But they set their novels in the past or future for a reason. Any realistic portrayal of contemporary life will show people preoccupied with the latest trendy restaurant or the newest iPhone. Dialogue would have to include the incessant texting that dominates communication these days.

While a John Updike or Philip Roth could portray real emotion in the simpler world a generation or two ago, writers today have a harder time getting at anything important when portraying our contemporary society with its diffused emotions and attenuated relationships.

Any given week, a half-dozen or more of the books on the bestseller list will be historical, time travel, or post-apocalyptic. Recently, the New York Times hardcover-fiction bestseller list included Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, set before and during World War II, and Edan Lepucki’s California, set in a harsh, post-apocalyptic future.

This literary fiction vies with mysteries, thrillers, and other genre fiction to reach an audience with a portrayal of human emotion that appeals to us because it is so far outside the humdrum non-drama of contemporary life. All aboard.

Darrell Delamaide, a journalist and author in Washington, DC, writes a food blog, You Are What You Eat, and a book blog, Cogito Ergo Sum. He is also the author of two novels, Gold and The Grand Mirage, as well as two nonfiction books.

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